Behind the scenes at Compton Verney Art Gallery

PUBLISHED: 12:53 30 July 2009 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013

Compton Verney Art Gallery

Compton Verney Art Gallery

Compton Verney has to be one of Warwickshire's big success stories. The house has been rescued, restored and filled with beautiful works of art and a smashing restaurant. We spent the day finding out what it takes to run a gallery of national impo...

Compton Verney has to be one of Warwickshire's big success stories. The house has been rescued, restored and filled with beautiful works of art and a smashing restaurant. We spent the day finding out what it takes to run a gallery of national importance.

"Watch out for frogs," warns Cranmer Webb as we duck down to walk through the Tudor tunnels under Compton Verney house. "There's usually one or two around. They live here. When we were having the building work done one of the builders used to rescue them and bring them outside. I had to explain that they actually prefer it in the cellar . . .".

I'm in the bowels of the gallery because I have asked Cranmer, operations manager for Compton Verney, about how the gallery keeps the air at the correct temperature and humidity for the works of art. It is a complicated procedure and the best way is to show me the engine room. It's like the engine room of a ship with pipes and cable everywhere and big machines, and dials, and buttons. I'm scared I'll brush against a button and be responsible for the deterioration of millions of pounds worth of art upstairs.

"Temperature is important - we keep the galleries at a constant 20-21 degrees C - but it's the relative humidity that's really important," explains Cranmer. "If it becomes too moist paintings expand and become mouldy. If it's too dry, they crack. We have a lot of German and northern European works here that are painted on wood and we have to be particularly careful with those. The relative humidity is at 50 per cent, plus or minus five per cent, and it stays that way 24 hours a day.

"Huge amounts of engineering have gone into this. The air comes into the building and all the water is extracted from it and the air is heated or cooled to the correct temperature. Then the exact amount of water is put back to get it to the right humidity..."

At this point Cranmer starts talking about plate exchangers, anti-freeze, dehumidifiers. It's all highly technical and very impressive. And we haven't even got onto the security aspects yet. Put simply the house is wired to the hilt with every sort of security device you could possibly need. "The only way we can get the visiting collections that we do get was by putting in the levels of security that galleries abroad would need. If you're asking another gallery to lend you a priceless Van Gogh you have to be able to look after it," says Cranmer. At the moment Compton Verney is hosting a collection of John Constable portraits all being looked after by the gallery's state-of-the art security.

After the cellar Cranmer decides that we need to see the roof. Of course we do, after all, my brief is 'behind the scenes' and this is about as behind the scenes as it gets.

Have you ever tried to get onto the roof of an English mansion? It's not for the fainthearted. Cranmer finds a ladder and I climb up through a trapdoor, then it's sharp right with one foot perched on a little ledge (dang those heels I should have worn flat shoes today), then twist my body round to climb up the rungs of wall-attached ladder and out into the fresh air.

The panoramic view of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown's landscaped grounds is worth it. The lake dapples in the sunshine, cows munch in the meadows and Cranmer points out the newly-planted trees in a far field that are the species that Capability Brown had specified for his park.

It's here that the full extent of Compton Verney's transformation can really be seen. For a start there's the new lead roof on which I'm standing which was one of the first things to be repaired. The previous roof had been stolen and the resultant leaks caused of a lot of damage to the original ceiling in the Adam Hall, which had collapsed.

I can see the bridge, which bore the brunt of a carelessly driven army jeep during the war. It's been repaired as have the sphinxes, used for target practice by soldiers, and there's no sign today that these ground were used as an experimental site for smokescreen target practice. The Cedars planted in the 1770s are still there and the towering Wellingtonia which is about 200 years old, says Cranmer. The original Capability Brown pathways have been opened and the Ice House is currently being restored

"The ice was taken from the lake in the winter and stored in the Ice House for the summer," says Cranmer. "It was an unusual design, it had the two layers of brick to keep the ice cold but it was roofed in thatch which was very unusual."

At this point the fire alarm sounds and a loudspeaker tells us to remain where we are until further notice.

Cranmer's walkie talkie rings. "It's probably someone opening the dishwasher," he says to me before barking instructions into the phone. I'm a little worried at this point. It took me several minutes to climb up that ladder. I mentally work out how quickly I can climb through a little hole that's only just wider than me...then the walkie talkie goes again.

"It's OK," says Cranmer. "It's the kitchen, just a bit of steam." How could they tell so quickly, I wonder? "There are sensors everywhere and we can see on the screen exactly which alarm in which part of the building is going off." Ah, that high-tech stuff again.

In the galleries there is no sign of the high-tech stuff, just beautiful spacious rooms with inspiring works of art.

Gallery director is Dr Steven Parissien and he is determined that Compton Verney should appeal to those groups of people who aren't traditional gallery-goers. In other words families.

"We do offer a broad range of things to a broad range of visitors," he says. And it's true. The Folk Art gallery, for example, is a delightful exhibition of British art and would appeal to all ages including the tinies. Then there's the more high-brow Constable exhibition and also a fascinating collection of surreal and contemporary art.

Dr Parissien has the brief of encouraging visitors to make a day of it. "We're quite relaxed here. There's plenty of space for the kids to let off steam. Yes, we are primarily an art gallery. We're not the National Trust and we wouldn't want to be but we want to be more accessible. We want to be more accessible to people who aren't regular gallery goers."

On the day we visit several groups are in including two coach loads from local art groups. Which means the café is working at full stretch. Nigel Johnston-Smith, is the catering manager, and he tells me the café serves up around 100 cups of tea a day and in the region of 100 cakes. The café is heaving as everyone wants their lunch at the same time - me included. I tuck in to a delicious chicken salad with wonderfully crunchy Little Gem lettuce (both locally sourced and the chicken is free range). To drink, I have a bottle of Snitterfield apple juice. I like this emphasis on local. Also on the menu are local Warwickshire cheeses, ice cream from Henley-in-Arden, Purity Pure Gold and UBU beers and Hogan's Cider.

In the shop too there is a selection of locally-made goodies to take home. "We've got Four Angels cakes and local jams and honey," says Louisa Adkins, commercial manager, who's in charge of the buying decisions for the shop.

Selection of stock is themed according to the exhibitions. "For the Constable exhibition we've gone for a Georgian theme so there is lots of lace and pearls, then we've got the surreal range and some books by Paula Rego," says Louisa. I make a mental note to come back to for a contemporary milk jug in the shape of a milk carton.

There are also locally-made pieces of jewellery and books of art, as well as locally-produced books. "We wanted to stock pieces that people won't see anywhere else," says Louisa. And, like any gallery shop, there is the children's section full of pocket money toys.

The shop is where, I'm guessing, the children from Studley C of E Primary School will be heading for later. At the moment they're in the Adam Hall with their teachers who have gamely dressed in period costume for the children to draw their portraits. In another part of the house is a smaller group of children who have been coming one morning a week from the Pound Lane Centre in Leamington which is a pupil reintegration unit.

They're been working with Sarah Plumb, from Compton Verney's Learning programme, who is helping the children work towards an art qualification. "The children here are aged between 11 and 16 and we've been looking at people they admire and they're been doing some silkscreen pictures. Brandon is a big fan of Eminem. He's created a stencil of an image of Eminem and put the picture onto a T-shirt," says Sarah.

I chat to Luke who is quiet lad and quite shy to start with until I ask him about his favourite artist - Banksy - and he suddenly opens up and shows me his pictures, and the silkscreen that he's working on, and we look at a book of Banksy's art. And I suddenly realise that this is what art is really all about.

As I leave the room some elderly gentlemen from Galanos House, a care home for ex-servicemen arrive. They're here so that the children can pass on their art skills to them and talk to them about the projects they've been doing. To prepare the children Jennifer Cranfield, community historian, has been working with them on how to interview people. "It's basically teaching them to ask questions like, when, where, how, why?" she says.

Jennifer is employed on the Compton Verney memory project. "I collect the memories and images of Compton Verney in the 20th century to put on the website," she says. Samuel Lamb was the last person who lived in it as a proper house in about 1929-30 and we have collected the memories of elderly people who remember it. I managed to track down Samuel's daughter. She was living in Argentina, very elderly of course. I found her through Facebook!"

Compton Verney is a house with a great history and its restoration is one of those great British success stories. Just 16 years ago the house had no one, and no money, to look after it and was becoming a mouldering old wreck. Today it bustles with life and enthusiasm and if just one of those children are inspired by seeing and doing art at Compton Verney it will have been worth it.

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